“¡Figaro! (90210)” finds new voice, staging at Hop

by Hallie Huffaker | 4/8/15 5:15pm

From its opening projections of Los Angeles smog and the Hollywood Sign, “¡Figaro! (90210)” marks a stark departure from the Mozart comedy opera from which it is adapted, “The Marriage of Figaro.” But on the strength of new elements including a hip-hop-obsessed teenager, sexting and facelifts, the adaptation of the operatic classic — which opens today and boasts a cast list including both students and professional opera singers — continues the stellar form that saw versions of the same script win acclaim in New York and Los Angeles.

Javier Ortiz, a bass-baritone who has performed with the New York Opera Exchange and plays the opera’s titular role, called the show “hilarious.” Conceived by librettist Vid Guerrerio ’96, who first rewrote an opera as a senior at the College, the production transports Mozart’s original to modern-day Beverly Hills, where Ortiz’s Figaro, a handyman, and his love, Susana (Candace Lynn Matthews), are undocumented workers at a real estate mogul’s mansion.

“When I got the score in the mail, I would be in the kitchen by myself just cracking up at certain lines, because it was just so funny,” Ortiz said.

Stage directed by Melissa Crespo, with musical direction by voice professor Louis Burkot, the production features English and Spanish, often leaning toward vernacular phrasing. Among students involved in the production, two in particular – Emma Orme ’15 and Nate Graves ’13 — have pivotal roles in the show, with Orme playing the teenager Barbara and Graves tackling the teenager Bernard, also referred to as “Li’l B-Man.”

“The professionals have been so incredibly impressed by them,” Burkot said. “Both Emma and Nate are first-class performers and people.”

Matthews, a professional soprano who plays the role of Susana, said that production has been a “high-speed process.” On-site rehearsals with the leads began during the spring interim, and cast members have been added in the weeks following, she said.

According to Burkot, the primary challenge in the show’s rehearsal process has been working with its updated English, which does not flow “off the tongue” in the same manner as the Italian.

“I’ve found that I’ve had to take things a little bit more slowly and deliberately to get the words and the meaning out,” he said.

In addition to the challenges of working with the opera’s English translations, Ortiz and Matthews have faced additional challenges in Spanish, with Matthews called upon to sing in English with a Spanish accent and both characters having moments in the show where they slip into Spanish while conversing with one another, Burkot said. Although subtitles are projected onto the screen behind the performers during such scenes, according to the show’s program, Guerrerio wanted the Spanish language portions to remain in Spanish, Burkot said.

“[Guerrerio] wanted the American audience to have the same experience that foreigners here have when they can’t understand everything that is going on,” Burkot said. “He is very specific about what he wants.”

Alyssa Gonzalez ’17, one of the performance’s nine chorus singers, said that the subtitles are only one example of the themes addressed in the opera, including immigration and naturalization. Burkot, who described the issues confronted by the show as those seen “in our everyday lives,” also added that the show addresses distinctions of class and race.

“This is just such a cool idea,” Gonzalez said. “Many people find opera antiquated, but this is starting to make opera more relevant.”

Graves, whose character is adapted from the original role of “Cherubino,” echoed Gonzalez’s comments on the show’s relevance to the modern era. He also added that his character, who sings with an R&B touch not typically heard in opera, has posed unique challenges given the blend between styles.

“It is tricky because I have to balance both the classical and the R&B style,” Graves said. “I do my solos with the extra touch, but I go back to classical form in the cast numbers.”

“¡Figaro! (90210),” which opens today, will be performed at 7 p.m. this evening and at 8 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets cost between five and 10 dollars.